Tips for Caregivers of Patients with Heart Disease

For many people, the heart is believed to be at the center of life itself. When someone is excited or in love, the heart beats faster. In times of grief, anger, or other hurtful emotions, you can feel a squeezing and tightening sensation in the chest.

For healthcare professionals, there is more to the function of the heart than reacting to emotions. The heart works like a pumping station, receiving and delivering blood to and from different parts of the body. For the heart to work properly, it needs a perfectly functioning electrical system, healthy blood vessels, and a strong muscular build. If any of these components are damaged, a patient experiences a variety of symptoms that can range from mild to severe.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US for both men and women, and claims about 610,000 lives in a year. This figure is devastating and as a caregiver, you have to be extra diligent in caring for these patients.

As a caregiver, you must:

1. Have physical strength.

Many heart patients experience weakness. They also feel tired quickly, so you’ll have to assist the patient with activities of daily living such as eating, bathing, using the toilet, changing clothes, and other hygiene measures. You’ll also assist them with walking and transferring. These tasks are physically demanding and require adequate strength and stamina.

2. Help the patient adopt a healthier lifestyle.

For patients with heart disease, lifestyle changes are a necessary part of treatment. Here’s how to help:

a. Prepare healthy foods.

Helping a patient eat healthily can be one of the hardest things caregivers do, especially if the patient is newly diagnosed and still adjusting.

Patients with heart disease need a diet low in salt and fat, with lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy protein sources, and minimal recommended sources of fats. Their physician usually discusses the details of their diet restrictions with the healthcare team and caregivers need to strictly follow the physician's orders.

Remember that they may suffer from heart disease due to poor diet, which may have included large meals and opting for fast food and high-fat, processed foods. Serving steamed broccoli with chicken over brown rice might not do the trick!

For food preparation, be more creative. Use herbs and spices to improve flavor. Be aware of hidden salt in food, such as condiments (e.g., ketchup, mustard, soy sauce), processed and canned foods, and some types of cheese and butter.

b. Encourage the patient to stop smoking.

For patients with heart disease, smoking is a definite no-no because it causes the heart to beat faster and blood vessels to harden and tighten, both of which worsen symptoms.

c. Assist with exercise while providing rest periods.

Patients with heart conditions also need exercise to guard the function of other muscles and joints as well as promote circulation. The physician will recommend the type and length of exercises a patient can perform and the timing of rest periods. As a general rule, if a patient feels faint or short of breath during exercise, stop and let them rest.

3. Observe for worsening symptoms.

Your careful observations will guide you and prompt you to call for help. Be alert for danger signs such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, pain in the surrounding area such as the jaw, shoulders, and stomach, pale and sweaty appearance, lightheadedness, or fainting.

If you encounter the above signs, call for help immediately and make sure the patient is safely seated or lying down with their head slightly elevated by a pillow. Loosen their clothing and stand by as the nurse or physician provides a more thorough examination and treatment.

4. Document all your observations and actions.

Make it a habit to promptly jot down any changes in signs and symptoms or if there are new complaints—you can easily forget details if you regularly put off making notes.

5. Help patients take their medications on time.

Patients receiving treatment for heart disease usually have several medications to control their symptoms. Caregivers cannot administer medications, but they can give reminders and offer a glass of water for every scheduled dose.

6. Be emotionally prepared.

To care for someone with moderate to severe heart disease, you'll need a lot of patience and compassion. Because the patient tires easily, you'll have to slow things down. Their difficulties also cause emotional struggles and physical discomforts, too, so a little kindness goes a long way!

Heart disease is a huge healthcare problem. It’s a challenge for the patient, caregiver, and the rest of the healthcare team. Caregivers play an important role in providing needed assistance, comfort, and care to patients with heart conditions.